Never mind the unicorns, are you ready for the ghosts?

Business

Never mind the unicorns, are you ready for the ghosts?

As investors, it’s as important to predict future failures as it is to identify that next cheeky upstart

Mark Barnes

In 25 years’ time any number of our well-established, even global, companies will have disappeared. Cheeky upstarts, whose reason for being is not yet clear to us, will have replaced them.
As investors, it’s as important to predict future failures as it is to identify that next unicorn. As customers, we don’t have to really care. It’s about us, and the next generation of winners will have worked out what we want – and then give it to us.
Never mind the obvious, like implants replacing cellphones, what about traditional, there-forever businesses? What will be gone?
Banking will be gone, as we know it. Banks will neither be the repository of people’s savings, nor the source of personal credit. Vendors will supply credit, individuals will be sophisticated investors, all of them.Public services, but for absolute essentials, where there is no profit motive, will all but have disappeared. It’s happening already, in public transport, security, healthcare, education, you name it.
Regulated financial markets will no longer own price and allocate capital. Individuals will determine price as between themselves. New kinds of equity and fixed interest markets will emerge. Not looser, but tighter – with more rigorous, transparent and widely understood pricing and deeper liquidity. No more insiders. Fewer rules, fewer scams.
Labour-intensive businesses will be reconfigured into technology-assisted people-machine partnerships, only because machines won’t be allowed to take over completely. Robots already make pizzas, once considered an art. Fridges, toasters, ovens, washing machines – gone.
I’ve no idea how we’re going to deal with limited supplies of resources and raw materials, but it won’t be like it is now. Other alternatives or new sources – in space, maybe.We’ll travel less actually, more virtually. In any case, how much bigger can they make those passenger aircraft? Faster, different solutions will be found on or under land or water.
Basic materials, like glass, become even more clever, infused with technology, to manage lighting and heat and remote-controlled buildings, affecting the entire industries being replaced.
Most of this stuff is obvious, but you can’t risk investment decisions on foresight. Stock-picking becomes too risky, either buying the new or selling the old. Successful investing will still be a long-term game, but it’ll be more about recognising trends than spotting opportunities.
Most of these trend-makers will be driven by population growth, longevity and customer-centricity. The consumer is king for real now. Technology has entrenched that forever, sadly?The trouble is that there are more and more and more fussy, informed people who require tailored, personal solutions. The vast numbers of us have dropped the unit cost of production to the point where individual design is economically possible.
We’re going to hate how much we’re known and looked after, eventually. In the meantime, we’re happy to submit to it incrementally, every day, every minute, every time we touch our screens or keyboards. That’s the deal. I want it to be about me, but you need to know more about me to give me what I want.
OK, but don’t be naïve. You’ll get what you’re given, you’ll want what they want you to want, that’s what data mining is all about – predicting consumer behaviour, creating desire and then fulfilling it, at a price. More choice becomes no choice at all.
Some industries will thrive on this ever more populous world.Pharmaceuticals, the whole value chain: buy, buy, buy.  Most of us will be convinced that we want to live forever. We’ll be kept alive chemically. In 25 years’ time you’ll be able to choose to live forever. It’ll be planned from conception, right down to the DNA. Care for this ageing, growing, discerning population will go way beyond the field of medicine. Life support, as broadly defined as you like, is a vast industry: buy into it.
Education will have to change. Earlier specialisation will be required to satisfy the demand. This will come at a great cost to the foundations now built in general education. Those cracks will show, in time.
Alongside this intensely personal product design, a parallel and more valuable satisfaction index will become obvious. Old stuff that we used to have in abundance will become rare. Ownership instead of time share. Privacy ahead of participation. Quiet ahead of noise.
Simplicity will be our refuge from the invasive necessity of technology and life everlasting. You’ll have to plan to end up there on purpose, you’ll have to avoid being led astray by the modern game.
Mark Barnes is CEO of the Post Office.

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